A Generation Comes of Age

The Karachi mob today increasingly consists of young men who have been associated with these mohalla tanzeems, sports clubs, cultural organisations or student movements. They have in one way or another struggled for the improvement of their areas and the society in which they live. They have seen their anti-drug movements smashed by the police and their lobbying for better services pushed aside. As such, they have dealt with the corruption, inefficiency and tyranny of state institutions and understood the real powers behind them. Even the youth of Karachi’s traditional commercial communities have rebelled against their conservative parents and become part of the mob. Their war with the local establishment is as much a war of values as of power, the two in this case being inseparable.

A poem by a young man from Liaquatabad sums up this conflict rather well. He says:

The uniformed savage from
the rural areas stopped us

And asked me who was sitting
on the scooter behind me

My blood boiled

I wanted to plunge my
dagger into his stomach

And hang his intestines like
a garland round his neck

But the touch of your hand
on my shoulder stopped me

And I said, “She is my sister”

In tears of humiliation
I returned home

Curfews, police brutality, arbitrary arrests and beatings have only increased this conflict between youth and the establishment, and in the process, between youth and the compromise-loving older generation. However, a young poetess from Nazimabad welcomes the imposition of curfew. Addressing her beloved, she says:

I was talking to your mother
While you were waiting in the
alley for me
Curfew was announced
And I had an excuse to
spend the night at your house

The Karachi street power today is the most literate and aware mob that has been let loose on the streets of this country so far. It is a mob that is producing its own leaders, theoreticians and strategists. From the recent statements of its mohalla leaders and the peace committees that have sprung up in many localities, it is obvious that it is trying desperately to identify its problems with national and class issues.

The most militant section of this mob supports the leadership of the Mohajir Qaumi Movement (MQM). Their emergence of the MQM has no doubt given the mohajir youth of Karachi, Hyderabad and Sind’s smaller towns a sense of identity, but it has also divided this urban populations into ethnic groups. The supporters of the MQM argue that these divisions already existed, as the attitude of the immigrant communities from the north to urban issues and their relationship with the establishment were very different to that of the locals.

A further division in the urban population has been created by the MQM’s definition of mohajir. By stating that a mohajir is someone who comes from the “non-agreed” areas of India, the MQM has isolated the East Punjab refugees, the majority of whom are Urdu-speaking and sociologically and culturally indistinguishable from the other mohajirs. This definition has further weakened the urban movement, as the East Punjabis are a large group and they are now seeking alliances against the MQM. The MQM’s definition of a mohajir nationality has baffled observers. However, the explanation for it is simple, and lies in the politics of the small towns of Sind and of the rural areas of the province.

The politics of rural Sind and its smaller towns is dominated by Sindhi nationalism. Irrespective of which party the Sindhi-speaking youth belongs to, his attachment to the concept of complete provincial autonomy and to his culture, history and language is paramount. In the last twenty years major changes have taken place in Sind. Due to the policies of the Bhutto government, a fairly large Sindhi-speaking middle class emerged, and as it expanded into the smaller towns it came into conflict with well-entrenched mohajir and Punjabi commercial interests. After the failure of 1983 movement for the restoration of democracy, this middle class came to the conclusion that without the support of the mohajir dominated cities, no change was possible. The phrase, “We in the countryside and you in the cities,” became popular.

However, there are over three million East Punjabis living in Sind’s rural areas. They are not only ‘abadkars’ but also contractors, merchants and artisans and manufacturers catering to agricultural production. The rural economy in certain districts depends heavily on them. The interests of the new Sindhi middle class conflict with the interests of these rural-based East Punjabis. The MQM’s definition of a mohajir keeps these East Punjabis out of the MQM and makes the slogan “We in the countryside and you in the cities,” possible. It is for these reasons that a definition of mohajir that includes the East Punjabi is not acceptable to Sindhi nationalists.

What is happening in Sind’s cities is nothing exceptional. It has happened in most 19th and 20th century cities after an intensive period of massive urbanisation. The older order, usually feudal in nature, finds it difficult to cope with new urban problems and attitudes through its archaic institutions. Where governments have understood the change and responded to it positively, the old order has survived with modifications and adjustments. Where the response has been one of ignorance and suppression, the cities have overthrown the old order and changed the politics of the entire country.

Sind’s urban movement is beset with ethnic conflicts for the time being. However, in the troubled areas of Karachi, solutions are being offered. The one which is rapidly gaining popularity is that Karachi should have 300 elected councillors instead of one hundred. The municipal council should be the government of the city with the power of allocating funds, and all development agencies, civic bodies and the police should be subservient to it. It is firmly believed by the residents of the troubled areas that this will not only put an end to their problems in the long run but also end all ethnic strife.

“Once the elected people from our mohalls have power, we can force them to work with us for our welfare,” says Nazir Ahmed, a motor mechanic living in Mahmoodabad. “Then we can weed out corruption and inefficiency. It’s no use changing a Punjabi SHO with a mohajir. What is important is that the SHO should be accountable to us and his SP to our representatives.”

Those who are propounding this solution do not realise that so radical a measure cannot be acceptable to the government. Its implementation will be nothing less than a major revolution, as it cannot remain limited to Karachi alone. It will give enormous power to the mohalla, empower its people with decision-making and make the bureaucracy subservient to them.

It is in the nature of urban movements like the ones in Sind’s two major cities that they see their problems in isolation from larger national issues. It is here that the government and national political parties have to step in. The government has to understand and overcome the problems of the cities, even if it means the restructuring of local level institutions. The political parties, on the other hand, have to change their attitudes, policies and organisational structures to reflect the changed demographic, economic and sociological situation in the country. If that does not happen, we will be heading for a major crisis.

The Karachi and Hyderabad urban movement has successfully been split on ethnic lines by its enemies and probably made ineffective for the time being. However, when similar urban movements develop in the Punjab, as demographic data suggests they will in the near future, it will not be so easy to defuse them.

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